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Thursday Night Preview: Who Will Win the Battle of NFC Heavyweights?

Two top-5 squads clash on Thursday Night Football. Can the Rams take care of business at home?

The football world seems to be slightly more excited about this week's Thursday night game than Todd Gurley is. The All-Pro back said that Thursday games are "probably the dumbest thing ever".

Either way, this week's clash pits two teams at the top of our team rankings (based on our nERD metric) against one another, with the Los Angeles Rams leading the pack and the Minnesota Vikings slightly behind them at fourth following an embarrassing loss to the Buffalo Bills. Both are also among our favorites to end the year hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

Can the banged up Rams continue their march to 4-0, or can the Vikings grab a crucial road win and inch closer toward the top of the NFC North? Let's dig in and find out.

Quarterback Breakdown

Jared Goff leads a dynamic Rams offense, and so far he has shown that last season has been no fluke, at least through the first three games. In 2018, Goff checks in a healthy third in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back (0.44), and in terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in positive NEP -- Goff is also third with a mark of 59.05%.

Coming over to Minnesota in a monster offseason free agent signing, Kirk Cousins hasn't been quite as efficient as Goff. Among quarterbacks with 80 or more drop backs, Cousins has passed his way to 0.14 Passing NEP per drop back, good for 14th, while he has been slightly better in terms of Passing Success Rate (49.32%, 12th).

In looking at Average Intended Air Yards (IAY) -- the average air yards a passer throws on all attempts -- Goff holds a decided edge, posting a mark of 8.2 IAY, while Cousins trails significantly at 6.6 IAY.

With what looks like an advantage to the Rams at quarterback, how do the running games stack up?

Running Back Play

The Rams posted a decided edge at the quarterback slot, and at running back, the situation looks to be pretty similar.

Todd Gurley has been a beast yet again in 2018. Among the 43 running backs with 20 or more carries, Gurley ranks fifth in Rushing NEP per attempt with a mark of 0.15, which is even more impressive when you consider that he leads the NFL in carries (62).

Gurley's monster workload doesn't stop there, though -- he ranks 9th in targets among the same group of running backs (14) with 11 receptions to his name. Dude ain't messin' around.

It looks like Dalvin Cook could suit up this week, as he missed last week's loss to the Bills with a hamstring injury. Unfortunately for Cook, he's been in struggle mode in 2018. Out of the gates, Cook ranks dead-last in Rushing NEP per attempt (-0.37) and Rushing Success Rate (19.23%). Even though he has missed a game, he does see an ample amount of action in the passing game, as he has seen 12 targets over 2 contests.

With the second-ranked offense in the league, the Rams are sure to test the Vikings defense. Are they up to the challenge?

Defensive Matchup

Two of the top defenses in the NFL will square off tonight, making life certainly tough on both offensive units.

The Rams' defense has been dominant this year, ranking fifth overall in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play and fifth against the pass. They have struggled against the run, checking in only 23rd.

In looking at Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate, which measures sacks plus intentional grounding penalties, the Rams' pass rush has been virtually non-existent in 2018, checking in 30th (3.9%) with just 4 sacks to their name. That's a hefty step back for a unit that ranked fifth in 2017 in the same metric (7.9%). It's also important to note that cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters could be missing some significant time, and neither is expected to suit up here.

The Minnesota defense, meanwhile, has been quite good all around, ranking 10th overall by numberFire's metrics, 10th against the pass and 12th against the run. One area the Vikings have excelled in is adjusted sack rate, ranking fourth (9.5%). Danielle Hunter leads the way with three sacks and one in each contest to date.

Both defenses have also excelled in getting the ball back to their offenses, as LA ranks 9th in yards allowed per drive (27.47) and Minnesota clocks in just behind them at 10th (27.60).

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